TJ Clark, Manet, and Hidden Messages of Academic Support

In my readings this semester I have noticed, on several occasions, some embedded notes of support in art historical texts. Yes. Could they be purposefully included by the author, knowing their reader is probably overtired, overstressed, and one moment away from a jump off the bridge (for the fresh air!)? My decoding of certain passages had led me to believe that the author IS addressing me specifically, and all art historians in training, offering cheeky encouragement for the road. Here is one passage, from TJ Clark's otherwise tortuous The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers: Manet, the great Realist painter, discusses his own self-doubt/self-pity with French poet Baudelaire.

Manet: I really would like you here, my dear Baudelaire; they are raining insults on me, I've never been led such a dance...I should have liked to have your sane verdict on my pictures, for all these cries have set me on edge, and it's clear someone must be wrong...In London, the academy has rejected my pictures.

Baudelaire: So once again I am obliged to speak to you about yourself. I must do my best to demonstrate to you your own value. What you ask for is truly stupid. People are making fun of you; pleasantries set you on edge; no one does you justice, etc. Do you think you're the first to be placed in this position? Have you more genius than Chateaubriand and Wagner? And did people not make fun of them? They did not die of it.

Jamie: This exchange between friends Manet and Baudelaire, though, perfectly describes the emotional climate of my graduate program, always high stakes, always high drama. If only I could shout his words around the department like some kind of aural apotropaic.

Olympia (1863)

by Edouard Manet
Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Óscar Muñoz

Back in June I found myself wandering the halls of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Although the riches there are endless, one exhibition, now closed, really enraptured me. "Permission to be Global/Prácticas Globales" showed a collection of Modern Latin American artists grouped together into four thematic categories. Latin American art is nothing unusual around Houston and Texas, but, naively, I was surprised to learn that this was the first exhibition at the MFA in Boston. Even my mother, mildly interested in art, European mostly, was entertained and thrilled by some of the works. I swear she spent more time in those galleries than anywhere else in the museum. I was certainly not complaining. One of the artists I was introduced to was Oscar Munoz, from Colombia. The clip below is from a longer black and white video piece entitled Sedimentaciones (Sedimentations), from 2011. Projected onto three tables, the video loops a simple act. 

Oscar Munoz, Sedimentaciones

What we presume to be looking at is a darkroom, laid out with identification pictures in various states of development and a sink on either side. A disembodied arm reaches in from off camera, to lift a photo into or out of the fix solution. These arms move the photos to the sink where they either reveal a portrait or erase it, born or washed away by the liquid. That the video is projected onto a physical table, exactly like the one holding the photos, is very effective. It's almost as if you're complicit somehow in this terrible, gentle act of erasing identities.

I might not have understood what the artist was referring to if I hadn't encountered two things over my Houston tenure. First was a book given to me by a new friend, Great House by Nicole Krauss (2010) and second, the Antonio Berni show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2014). Although I only read some of Great House, it is so hypnotic and complex that I had to reread it several times, it was enough to plant a new piece of historical information. One of the first characters, a poet from Chile, is thought to have been kidnapped and made to "disappear." I didn't know if this was part of the novel or part of history really, until I saw the Berni show. An Argentinean artist, also working in the 20th century, makes visual references to social issues like these disappearances (desaparecidos) in his masterful works in many media. Truly one of my favorite artists.

Antonio Berni at the MFAH

In Chile and Argentina, and other countries, forced disappearances, when political dissidents are kidnapped and murdered without a trace, have claimed tens of thousands of lives. One nasty detail that I remember reading was that many of these people were pushed out of airplanes, while still alive.

Now Munoz's video makes total sense.
Although there may be connections to the political history of Colombia, where disappearances have happened much more recently, Munoz is also interested in concepts of memory, time, and optical illusions.

I'm so taken by this artist that I'm translating parts of his book, Documentos de la Amnesia, from Spanish to English. This process, however challenging, is truly rewarding in that the thoughts, his ideas, have burrowed much more deeply into my psyche.


Roundup: Texas, The Early Years

This is where we moved into our first home, found important work that we enjoy and people, too. In Texas, I became an adult maybe, learned to network, found mentors, and managed to succeed through another round of academic applications while Alex published his first book, impressing artists statewide. We traveled widely around Texas, from one end to the other, and to our neighbors, New Mexico, New Orleans, and Latin America. And of course, probably my favorite thing about this strange land, the food: strong flavors, queso, Topo Chico, fish tacos, spicy everything, and always, pan dulce. Many of these were new to me! Here's to the next several years we've signed up for: in Dallas, the one place we have yet to discover, and where I'll be working toward my PhD.

New in town, October 2012. Exotic flora.

The East End in Houston. Wild colors and Western wear.
Oak Tree canopy on my favorite street. 

My first project at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Winterhalter and Worth in Hirsch library.
Road trip West, Hill Country/Central Europe of Texas.

Enchanted Rock

San Antonio

Soo Sunny Park at Rice Gallery

Marfa, Texas

Daydream: Baptismal Font

A day in the country, toward Hill Country, where the wildflowers spring up for a too quick chance to share their transformative encouragement.

On the edge, in the depths and ever, ever close to the next adventure.


El Mariachi and Mexico

Recently returned from number one on my top five in five years travel list, Mexico, and I'm all kinds of nostalgic about the experience.

As soon as we arrived back in Houston we went straightaway to the closest Mexican restaurant. Even after I discovered I had purchased a nice parasite as one of my only souvenirs I still wanted to ask for tacos in Spanish and lie in mild pain with a telenovela going (and I was worried about drug war crimes). After a few days of hosting my new friend, eating mostly oatmeal with coco water, I am finally feeling normal. For my last night of self-pity and laptop television I put on my best Mexican night dress for Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi, 1992. We'd seen posters all over Mexico, but I think it was for a glamorous remake (not the original with a $7,000 budget).

I was blown away by how good this El Mariachi is. It's just the perfect recap for a visit to Mexico; the bright light, hot sun, range of colors, and it doesn't hurt that el mariachi is a dreamy weirdo. The film is consistently hilarious, even wacky, but with plenty of genuine, human touches. Rodriguez really masters the lo-fi technique here and it is very, very satisfying. I could watch it again if only I had a few mango paletas close by.

Leading up to this film viewing, related to mariachi:
1. Right before Latin America we attended Go Tejano Day at the Houston Rodeo, now an annual tradition for us. Reliant Stadium was completely filled for the post-rodeo musical entertainment. To warm us up for the beloved tejano band, Pesado, there was a Mariachi Competition. The groups we saw were led by incredible women with great outfits and choreographed moves. So impressive.

2. In Mexico City we found dozens of roaming, rag-tag to showy peacock, mariachi groups at Plaza Garibaldi. 

Basically los mariachis get dressed up to varying degrees, bring their instruments, and busk in front of a museum dedicated to Tequila and Mezcal. We saw them in the streets for blocks before the plaza, soliciting for off-site gigs. You can actually drive over and hire them for a wedding or birthday party elsewhere in the city. Once we got there it was so enchanting we couldn't refuse a song. One of the more rag-tag groups crowded very close around us and sang out a romantic song about a beautiful lady. Eyes were on me during the chorus. 

Since these guys were so close I couldn't comfortably return their gaze. Instead I focused on some inanimate details: a faded Mickey Mouse sticker on the smallest guitar, the sad repairs hastily done on another, or the amateur tattoos on one really mournful looking guy's hands. For sixty pesos (approx. 4.00USD) it was a memorable time both for the musical atmosphere and for a peek into the social world and history of mariachis. 


Next, Next Adventures

I've been pretty lucky with my traveling schedule. Nothing exotic lately, but a closer look around my new homeland. Included on some recent trips are the Germanic parts of Hill Country, west of Houston near Austin, coastal experiments down the Gulf, and the most extreme visit: far, far West Texas. For this we drove and drove and drove clear across the state for two days until we made it to incredibly magical Marfa.

I'll get back to that story next time, because all I can think about right now are the trips I'm threading through the following six weeks.


Mardi Gras, 2002.

Second: MEXICO!

Coatlicue, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City


Get Your Mind Going

Hungry for something deeply provocative? Here is a double feature that spontaneously unfolded over this weekend.

My original double feature, one I had been inexplicably imaging for many, many years, was meant to be Klute and Krull. I don't know what propelled this set other than the strange sounding one word titles. We'd already had a look at Klute and left it unimpressed half way through. When Krull arrived shortly thereafter I had somewhat reduced hopes. It lasted about five minutes in the machine. Out out!

In place of my failed programming we agreed, at around 10pm Saturday evening, to fire up last year's The Act of Killing. This documentary, conceived of and directed by (Texas born) Joshua Oppenheimer, was shocking in the vein of Herzog. I was not expecting to empathize with the antagonists re-enacting, cinematically, their sordid exploits in Indonesia during the 1960s.

The Act of Killing, 2012. 

Throughout the film, I must say, we were wracked with questions and discomfort. Without going into a needless review: I recommend this film for those of you interested in the incredible. The concept, production, and resultant dialogue are reminders of the power of visual arts, human connections, and the problems therein.

Despite the fact that we were a little shaken and perplexed by the unfolding events in the film we drifted off to sleep without any soft chaser. I'm surprised that I was able to do so easily.  

A last minute decision the following day to attend Slavoj Zizek's The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, along with a mob of other Houstonians, gave us the critical language for framing and understanding The Act of Killing. Throughout this film I kept getting antsy to share with Alex the connections that could be made (beyond the fact that both films use cinema, implicating themselves as characters superimposed or unseen, as a vehicle for advancing particular ideas).

For an out-of-academia academic Zizek's vitality for applying complicated theories to pop culture and relating them contextually is a life giving nutrient. Of course there were plenty of arguments that were completely lost on me, but during two thrilling hours there was plenty of activity among my brain cells. So many of his ideas and comments are in line with my underdeveloped ranting sentiments, especially consumerism and desire. I especially appreciated his take on the stupid film, Titanic.

Still from They Live.

After Zizek relented with his manic mad genius charisma we went straight toward the booze for an extended discussion, this time including a couple of our friends from the MFAH's conservation lab (and oddly enough we ran into another couple of conservation colleagues at the bar).  

All of this, along with a caffeine jolt picked up at the Kafeneio (Nescafe Frappe!), got me buzzing with excitement. The complicated feelings unearthed from watching the documentary, heightened by the rapid fire, wide ranging knowledge and theoretical lingo from Zizek, has me feeling quite alive and well. When I worry about my critical mind, my unanswerable questions, I will think of Zizek and be comforted.